After losing control of Kettlebell Kitchen, Carley Jones said her heart had been “ripped out”. But the award-winning entrepreneur has bounced back impressively and is keen to share what she’s learned on the start-up journey
At the top of her game
Carley Jones was at the top of her game and very much in demand. In 2018, the young British founder of the healthy fast food chain, Kettlebell Kitchen, found herself at the vanguard of a clean eating trend transforming the food industry. She was catering for the likes of Apple, Under Armour and Converse, and winning major awards too.
Setting out to redefine fast food for the gym crowd, Jones hit a winning formula with clean versions of popular dishes that had no chemicals or filler. They went on to ship freshly made, pre-proportioned and fully customised meals straight to your door.
She’d come up with the idea after leaving the gym at 8pm, struggling to find something healthy to eat. Realising there were many others like her who were time poor and wanted a healthy alternative to the usual fast food outlets, she set to work. Suddenly chicken protein waffle burgers, firecracker wraps and peanut protein fries were all the rage.
The business had achieved £1.25 ($2m) revenues in year one and in order to fund expansion plans, Carley began to talk to potential investors. And that’s when she began to lose her grip on the business.
“We started to win awards at this point and really get recognised for our growth, brand and hard work,” she recalls. “We won the Chairman’s award at the Eat, Sleep and Drink Awards plus Start-up of the year at the E3 Awards. I personally won the Barclays women in business award for ‘Rising Star’ and Natwest entrepreneur of the year awards for start-up of the year in 2018. We were even featured in Business Insiders ‘Most exciting companies to watch’.”
At the time, she was carefully considering a £500k investment offer for a 25 per cent stake in her business when she ran into a former colleague who she liked and trusted. They offered her a much smaller investment, £100k, for the same 25 per cent stake, but with no conditions on targeted spend, plus the offer to help and mentor her.
After mulling it over, she decided to go “with my heart instead of my head” and take the £100k investment. As far as Jones saw it, she would “gain a trusted friend as a business partner, instead of a stranger I knew nothing about”.
However, things didn’t turn out as she’d hoped. What began was a series of unwise expansion decisions, which saw the business take on a unit next to the investor’s gym and buy with limited working capital an online food delivery company out of liquidation.
Further complications arose when the investor transferred their existing employees from their business over to Kettlebell Kitchen, which almost doubled the wage bill overnight. Other acquisitions included a bakery and additional production units, which quickly left the business over-stretched and struggling to pay wages. The investor subsequently introduced another investor who invested £150,000 for a 15 per cent stake in the business. Not long afterwards, the second investor brought their Financial Director into the business, which strengthened the control of the investors.
Expansion decisions were not bringing in the profits they’d hoped for. When they opened another unit in the neighbouring city of Salford, which got off to a great start, to their horror they realised it was to the detriment of their flagship shop in Manchester a few miles away.
“Was our market so niche and our customer pool so small in and around Manchester that by opening more stores it was simply taking customers from our first site?” worried Jones.
She was never able to properly find out. It wasn’t long afterwards that she learned the business had to go into liquidation. Insolvency practitioners were called in and before long Jones found herself written out of the business by her investors and no longer in control.
“It felt like my heart had been ripped out,” she subsequently told local media.
Failure is part of the entrepreneurial journey
The company was bought out of liquidation by the new owners and still continues to trade today. There is clearly a great deal of acrimony between Jones and the investors and, while we are unlikely to ever get to the bottom of everything that happened, it’s a cautionary tale no entrepreneur should ignore and a reminder that there is no sentiment in business.
Separations like this can be painful, ugly and certainly take their toll. Jones has publicly acknowledged that the fallout made her become a shell of her former self. But rather than lick her wounds, she’s bounced back impressively and set up a beauty supersalon and a hair extension business with a training academy. On top of which she has a business consultancy company, which helps founders with their businesses from concept to three to four years in.
“I am extremely settled now and content with little stress,” she explains. “It was a dark time and I wasn’t sure how I could motivate myself to go again, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It may be a cliché, but it turns out that failure is part of the entrepreneurial journey. And it’s a truism that Jones has finally come to embrace.